Thursday, 29 April 2010

Voss by Patrick White

On Tuesday night 27 April, Gerda, Kate and I had a good discussion about this amazing book. It was a real pity more of you couldn't attend. We decided it was definitely one of the best books we have ever read for the story, the language, the characterisation, the cleverness and even the humour.

The story is loosely based on the 3 explorations of inland Australia by Ludwig Leichhardt. It was written in the mid 1950s and Australia was a very different country from today, culturally and in the way we think about ourselves as Australians. The Second World War effects were still an issue as well.

The main character is Voss, a German outsider and a man with a mission and a vision. He needs to do this trip across Australia not only for an intellectual exercise but he seems to have a physical need for it too. He meets Laura Trevelyan, also an outsider, and they fall in love with only moments of acquaintanceship -- literally a few hours of a picnic, a dance, a most difficult ride in a carriage and a farewell on the wharf. He writes to her at the first 'outstation' on their expedition and asks to marry her and from that moment they are linked/wedded telepathically.

There is a lot of racism in this book for example the 'German' is often pointed out or discussed by the Bonners and others. He is variously described as the Christ and as the devil. It is very much a love/hate relationship for Mr Bonner, the main supporter of the expedition. There is also a lot of love and hate about the country itself noted by the characters. This duality is found in the members of the expedition party too -- convict and squattocracy, young and fit and older and not so fit (Judd and Palfreyman), young and old Indigenous persons, rich and poor.

Laura and her cousin are also opposites in lots of ways and at times show an Australian version of Jane Austen's irony in mid 19th century Sydney.

It is a tragic tale but does not indulge in sentimental waffle.

There are also occasional funny moments --at the farewell on the wharf the "Colonel clasped the German's hand in a gloveful of bones'.

White was heavily critical of Australia in the mid 1950s and it does come out in this novel. Read David Marr* for more information about White's feelings about Voss. It has become a classic and Kate thought it would mke a great film although the tripping backwards and forward sequences are a little old fashioned these days.

It is highly recommended and easy to see why Patrick White won so many awards. It is well worth the effort.

* David Marr, Patrick White: A life